Courtney J. Martin, the director of the Yale Center for British Art, remembers seeing a striking painting by Jack Whitten at a family friend’s house when she was a child. It wasn’t until she began studying art history in her 20s that she realized that the painting, with its stark palette, striated surface and geometric composition floating in a strange optical space, was part of a series Whitten had made in the mid-1970s.
And it wasn’t until she began to think about doing a show of the work at Dia Art Foundation, where she was the chief curator and deputy director from 2017 to 2019, that she came to understand just how many of these works there actually were, and the significant role they played in the modernist giant’s career.
The suite, called the Greek Alphabet paintings because he used the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet as his organizing principle, number around 60 or so, and were the painter’s sole focus from 1975 to 1978. They represent a crucial turning point in his approach to his medium — a hinge between his colorful atmospheric abstractions of the 1960s and early 1970s and his more sculptural tesserae paintings of the 1980s — but they have never been shown together in any significant number.
A new show at Dia:Beacon, “Jack Whitten: The Greek Alphabet Series,” brings together 40 of these works. In a recent conversation, Donna De Salvo, one of the exhibition’s curators, said they represent something like a “lost chapter” in the story of Whitten’s development as an artist. De Salvo, along with Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, stewarded Martin’s idea for the exhibition after she left Dia for Yale in 2019.
Whitten’s work on the series began in March 1975, on the heels of his first solo institutional show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. As De Salvo explains, the artist was deep into his move away from Abstract Expressionism and its emphasis on the signature brush stroke, as well as from emotionally laden color. “He makes the decision to more or less abandon color and make these achromatic paintings with incredible permutations within them,” she said.
“This is a body of work that has a system to it,” said Guidelli-Guidi, a set of self-imposed rules that guided his studio experiments. That rule-based approach was one embraced by other key conceptual artists of the period, including Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman. It was also an aspect of the thinking of Robert Smithson, the creator of “Spiral Jetty” and an artist in whom Whitten had particular interest. “He uses tons of dirt; I use paint,” he wrote in 1974.
Whitten’s rules went something like this: For each letter of the Greek alphabet, he would work on a specific canvas size and with a single compositional idea until he had exhausted its possibilities, and then move on to the next letter, adhering to a different set of conditions. (For the four paintings that make up the “Eta” group, for example, he focused on circles and diagonals placed on a striped surface, while the three “Lambda” paintings are composed of two horizontal rectangles floating one above the other.)
He worked on the floor, pouring or spraying layers of black-and-white paint to canvas, and then manipulating them using tools he called “developers” that he found or made — squeegees, rakes and combs, some of them up to 12-feet wide — to produce striped patterns or scraped textures. Various objects placed underneath the linen — wires, flat geometric shapes, pebbles gleaned from Crete’s beaches or other “disrupters”— resulted in blips, blooms and flares as Whitten pulled pigment over it. He’d mix acrylic with graphite powder, silica or hot water so it would refract light differently; sometimes he’d use a drill or an ice pick to create tiny holes in his paintings that he’d then refill, creating tiny points of light or stuttering lines.
Many of these techniques were developed to abandon the brush, and thus the evidence of the artist’s hand. But Whitten was toeing a fine line: “Yes, non-gesture, but not machined,” he wrote.
All this experimentation with materials and process was in service of creating surfaces that seem to vibrate in the eye. “At some point, he started using some kind of serrated blade,” said Guidelli-Guidi. “It really cut into the acrylic so that the layers were visible.” The exposed black and white paint layers create a flickering moiré effect in some works, a grayish glowing aura in others, she explained.
Whitten compared his process to that of John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” — densely packed notes played so quickly that they almost seemed to be stacked on top of each other. He likewise thought of his paintings as “sheets of light.” They also suggest photographs of deep space, early computer screens, quantum mechanics, fractal geometry and topographical maps — a reflection of the artist’s deep interest in technology and science.
Whitten and his wife, Mary Whitten (nee Staikos), who was of Greek origin, started spending summers in Crete in 1969, and he dove into learning the language. He kept a handwritten note in his pocket of the 24 Greek letters alongside his own phonetic pronunciations of their names (veta for beta, pee for pi, ghama for gamma); he used these to title works in the series.
But he didn’t make these works while abroad. “In Greece he was sculpting, in New York he was painting,” De Salvo explained. “Well,” Guidelli-Guidi said with a laugh, “in Greece he was mostly spear fishing. And then he also did some sculpture.”
Whitten, who died in 2018, felt a strong connection to the country, where as a Black man he found a measure of liberation from the oppressive racial politics of the United States. But he explained his use of the alphabet in a letter to a friend as a way “to deter any specific romantic or emotional involvement with titles.”
“It’s always an objective system in a way, even though one wants to read into it,” De Salvo said.
De Salvo characterized the task of tracking down the paintings as “a bit of a detective thing.” While a handful had entered prominent public collections — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney — many works had been sold or given to friends. Whitten exchanged one with his accountant to pay for tax preparation. De Salvo spotted one in a photograph that appeared in The New York Times in 2021, hanging in the study of Ray McGuire, the Wall Street executive and former New York City mayoral candidate. (That painting, “Pee III,” is included in the show.) The curators hope that others will resurface following the Dia:Beacon exhibition, as collectors realize what they have on their walls.
Martin expects that the show will be eye-opening. “Even among the people who know a lot about Jack, none of us have seen all of those paintings together until now,” she said. “The only disappointment for me in any of this is that Jack’s not here to tell us what we don’t know about these works.”
Jack Whitten: The Greek Alphabet Series
Through July 10 at Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, N.Y.; 845-440-0100; diaart.org.